Thursday, July 13, 2006

Robots @ OMSI

I reupped our family membership with OMSI on Monday, between visits to our Portland Knowledge Lab -- informally so-called -- and the Lucky Lab.

Tara went looking for Aibos, and found a case with them, none moving. The most animated robot, an arm, was assembling 2D puzzles from triangular tiles, in a race against half-heartedly playing-along humans.

The other main source of animation was an exhibit full of ants, asking us to think about how rules so simple an ant could follow them, might lead to emergently interesting properties, a so-called "hive mind".

I thought it was kind of cheating to use ants, since a hallmark of robots is that humans make 'em, at least indirectly. Yes, "by human design" may mean trading away some quality and sophistication, but in exchange we earn the right to have some pride in our work (unless, of course, we're simply slapping trademarks on naturally-occuring designs, adding little from our own humanity).

Bernie-the-geochemist has me persuaded that private industry long ago left most universities in the dust vis-a-vis critical path R&D. However in being more secretive and proprietary (vs. open source like academe) private companies ensure that realistic futurism stays locked away from prying eyes.

That's not necessarily a good thing, if those were positive toys. We could've inspired more hope in our young -- with working prototypes, not just artists' conceptions.

I bet Sony could have staged a dynamite exhibit about robots, or at least gotten more focus for its pioneering research. So many good toys stand waiting in the wings, while bus-loads of school children see only obsolete futures based on decades-old research.